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psychedelicadventures.com

 

John Perry Barlow
b. 1947
vice chairman and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Berkman Fellow at the Harvard Law School; former Grateful Dead lyricist and cattle rancher, father of three teenage girls
resides in Wyoming
born and raised in Wyoming

 

My first trip

            In a sense, there is only one real trip, the first one. After that, one is merely confirming what has already been revealed to him. I've probably taken psychedelic substances of one kind or another more than a thousand times. But I was permanently rewired -- my sense of the universe was forever changed -- the first time I ingested LSD.

            I did this sometime in late 1966 at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut, where I was then a student. The school had a distinguished world music program that brought in Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and others of their caliber, as fellows. Every Friday evening there would be a concert and curry dinner in a converted farmhouse outside of town.

            There was a guy I’ll call Ben who frequently attended these concerts. I always regarded Ben as a darkly magical character. He was a true prankster, one of the last Dada artists. On one of these curry concert evenings, he approached me and said, "I have a feeling you're interested in psychedelics." Indeed I was.

            Not long before, I’d read about the celebrated Good Friday Experiment of Walter Pahnke and was impressed with psilocybin’s apparent capacity to steer ideation toward the divine. I was very eager to establish contact with The Holy Who Knows. I'd been, at one time in my life, a fairly devout Mormon, but I'd traded my faith for juvenile delinquency and had been unable to get it back. I missed it. While I didn't miss some of the behavioral constraints that went along with being a Mormon, I did long to feel connected again to the huge and invisible. Because of the surprisingly Christian angle of the Good Friday Experiment, I thought that I might find in LSD something that might restore my connection with the God of the Bible.

            I’d never actually seen any psychedelics up to that point, so I jumped on the chance. Ben handed me a capsule. I took it and sat down to listen to the music. I think Ali Akbar Khan was playing that night. About half an hour into the concert, I started to feel like I could literally feel the music on my skin. Shortly it seemed I could taste it and smell it as well. All of my senses were fusing into one. I also had the strong perception that with every beat of the tabla, a splash of what I now recognize to be fractal webbing would leap from that area of the room and sparkle across the walls.

            When I say fractal webbing, I mean the lacy latticework that you see if you map certain chaotic mathematical realities like the Mandelbrot Set to a computer screen. When you use computation to visualize and magnify the "edges" of the Mandelbrot Set, you will see on your monitor exactly the same images that seemed to be exploding from the drum beats that night. It was a moire of multicolored connections that seemed to connect everything in the room.

            The interesting thing is that when I first beheld the fractal webs layering themselves upon the walls of that room, no one had ever seen them on a computer screen. It would be another eleven years before Mandelbrot would discover fractal geometry. But of course, the lack of modeling system hardly meant that the reality wasn't there. Indeed, it is now thought that the brief formulae of chaos math are actually the underlying algorithms of nature. All natural things, whether clouds, trees, river tributaries, blood vessels, or nervous dendrites, derive their structure from the recursive iteration of these very simple little rules.

            Seeing those fractals and feeling them in the music, I sensed the complete connectedness of everything. It was obvious to me that all of the separateness I ordinarily perceived was, in fact, an artifact of cultural conditioning, and was indeed less "real" than what I was supposedly hallucinating. At that moment, I knew that I was, for the first time, experiencing things as they are, utterly continuous. There is no discontinuity. There is not one thing and another thing. It is all the same thing, The Holy Thing.

            The Holy Thing I experienced that night didn't seem related to God as I had thought of deity before, a separate, invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing entity that was only a greatly enhanced version of something like me. Rather it seemed that God was all the universe, that we were God, that it was God, that everything was all holy.

            I had taken a fairly large dose and was disoriented enough that I couldn't speak at the end of the concert. Ben and a couple of friends took me back to the place I was staying. There we lit some candles, put on other music, and sat and listened all night without attempting to say very much. I seemed able to let everything go through my mind without straining the system, as though my awareness were dilated to an aperture that could accommodate the passage of the universe through it without causing me any grave discomfort.

            I subsequently had trips where that same kind of opening felt terrifying. On those occasions, I couldn't sustain enough of conventional reality to feel safely myself. There was also on those occasions the terrible feeling that my self had become so fragmented that its bits and pieces would never reassemble into something recognizably "me." I've learned to be grateful for these horrors too, in that they instruct me on my own fragile miracle.

            But the first time I tripped, it didn't feel like "I" went away. There was still a me there somewhere – mostly as the point around which my fragments orbited, but that "me" felt like an integral part of everything else. It was more a matter of realizing that I was It. I didn't go away. I just got much, much larger. I went someplace overwhelmingly different that night, and, to a large extent, stayed there for the rest of my life. My transformation didn't go through phases. I was simply somebody different after that.

As many times as I revisited the vision of interrelatedness I had that evening, I don't think I ever felt that quite so strongly again, because, as I say, my settings had already been recalibrated. From that point forward, I could always feel the natural connection of everything, despite living in a world where the illusion of separateness is impossible to resist.

            Of course some of that illusion is an operating necessity. Navigating the world of normal consciousness, one has to believe that if you pick up a rock and drop it on your foot, it will be separate enough to hurt you. If you walk off a balcony, you will be separate enough to fall. And yet I know that, on some deeper level, even falling to one's death is a kind of illusion. Nothing dies, it merely moves into another manifestation of the whole.

            My sense of time changed that evening. While it is also necessary and practical to go on perceiving time as being an irreversible sequence from past to future, there is a part of me that somehow "knows" that everything is actually happening once and that only the limitations of human consciousness make it appear otherwise.

            Another thing that happened to me that night was that I began believing again, for the first time since I was about fourteen, that the universe has a purpose, that no matter what happens in one's own infinitesimal vicinity, the universe is working fine. I don't believe that the meaning or direction or shape of that purpose can ever be understood by us, but it is possible to have faith in it without knowing any of those things. Subsequent to the experience, I've felt reaffirmations of that purpose, and my place in it, in a lot of different ways, primarily through the intervention of the countless meaningful coincidences – or sychronicities -- that have become the dominant factor in plotting the crooked course of my life.

            There have been improbable encounters at propitious moments, doors that strangely opened to me, little miracles. I think these are there for everyone, but psychedelics make it easier to see and accept aspects of reality that one can't rationally explain. Of course, one can reach this state of awareness without them. Consider the great quantum physicist Niels Bohr, who, when asked if he believed in superstition, responded, "I don’t have to believe in it. It works anyway."

            The essence of what I received that night was a recognition that reality, in its totality, is something much larger and more complex than will ever fit through the tiny keyhole of human perception. Human perception, even enhanced by all the tools of technological amplification we might invent, will never begin to encompass It. We will always be limited by the filters of consciousness. Consciousness, I now believe, is more about what we don't experience than what we do. Thus, reality, as most people experience it in the objective, scientifically reproducible, Western sense, is really an opinion based on what little we can perceive of the Thing Itself.

            With the possible exception of having children, taking that trip was the most important thing I ever did. In terms of creating the person I am and how I approach the world, why I do what I do, and what I think it's all about, no other experience in my life has been so transforming. When you know that everything is invisibly connected, it alters everything you do, from the way you treat "other" people to the way you treat "yourself." It certainly changed the focus of my intellectual interests.

            Up to that point, I'd been preparing myself to master in physics. Suddenly my focus was much more diffuse but oriented more toward the general vicinity of religion, especially those philosophical traditions, most of them Eastern, that seemed to describe the insights I was given that night. I also read mystical literature from other traditions, including the fairly slender body of it that exists in the Western world, seers such as Meister Eckhardt, St. John of the Cross, and Saint Theresa.

            Another thing that happened to me at the time of this first trip was being assigned Teillhard de Chardin for a philosophy course I was taking. I hadn't quite been getting what he was on about, but after the trip, I knew that he had somehow seen what I had seen. He wrote that evolution was reaching a level of complexity where it could become aware of itself, creating a collective organism of mind capable of keeping God company. Understanding his vision and adopting it drives much of my efforts today. I'm trying to spread electronic communications systems in order to hook up the nervous system of that organism.

            Engaged in the politics necessary to wire the world, I encounter many people in positions of influence and visibility -- politicians, corporate leaders, scientists, engineers, writers, academics – who are motivated by the same mystical drive that propels me. They are acidheads, but nearly all of them are afraid to admit it. Its as though the future were being created by a secret cult. And even though it's my secret cult, I'm not crazy about secrecy or cults, and I'm certainly not keen on having them design the rest of society.

            I think it's time to be brave and honest. I know that if everybody who'd ever taken a major psychedelic stood up and said, "Yeah, I did that and this is how it changed my life," the world would be a better place the next day.

               

 

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